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The child protection system in Pennsylvania can’t hold together under the strain of mandatory reporting and the opioid crisis, according to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

“We have a system that is broken to the point it can’t keep kids safe any longer,” said DePasquale who was in Lancaster Thursday on a statewide mission to create a plan to fix it.

“There are children sleeping and living in horrendous conditions,” said DePasquale, who vowed to present Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Legislature with a plan to remedy some of the conditions in child welfare by spring.

In 2016, parental substance abuse was the leading factor in the state’s 31,649 cases of child abuse involving 46,525 children, according to state Department of Human Services press secretary Rachel Kostelac.

A state mandatory reporting law for child abuse also contributed to spikes in the number of cases after it went into effect in January 2015.

Disturbing data

DePasquale visited several counties in the past week and said he was alarmed to learn that:

  • York County has a 90 percent turnover rate each year in its Children & Youth caseworkers and 10 percent of the children in City of York are homeless.
  • One-third to one-half of all children in Cambria County, which has been hit hard in the opioid epidemic, are in the child protection services system.
  • The Children & Youth Services building in Luzerne County was firebombed this year by a parent who was unhappy with a custody decision.

Additional problems were outlined in DePasquale’s audit of the state’s child abuse hotline, where 58,000 calls went unanswered in 2016.

46 deaths in 2016

“We spent nearly $2 billion dollars in 2016, yet 46 children died and 79 nearly died from abuse that year,” he said. “What really disturbs me is that nearly half of the children who died were in families that were already known to CYS,” DePasquale stated in his “State of the Child” released in September.

An array of Lancaster County officials reported during a roundtable discussion with the Auditor General that child abuse and reports of concern about children have doubled in the past two years and that the caseworker turnover here is at 60 percent annually.

Low pay, stress of the job, and overtime requirements were cited as some of the reasons for the high turnover.

Overwhelming caseload

“It’s hard to build rapport with a child when that caseworker leaves or a family has had five different caseworkers in a year,” said a supervisor with the Lancaster County Children & Youth Agency.

“It’s a luxury for a caseworker to build that rapport. They can’t when they are stopping on the way to see five other families,” she said.

One supervisor said that, at times, caseloads have zoomed from 15 cases to 52 cases per worker.

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said more than 600 cases of child abuse have been referred to his office for prosecution this year.

Unprecedented situation

“I’ve been a prosecutor since 1991 and I have never seen anything like this,” said Stedman referring to the opioid epidemic and its effect on children.

“One of the most frustrating things is when a pregnant mother has been using heroin and her doctor has told her it may cause brain damage or harm her baby, and we can’t do anything about it under the law,” said Stedman. “That’s morally wrong.”

He said he’s also frustrated about the inability to mandate treatment for those who were revived from an overdose with Narcan.

“Heroin is one issue that has plagued us,” said Crystal Natan, executive director of the county’s Children & Youth Agency. “It’s difficult to keep children safe in an environment with heroin or meth.”

She said the need to place more children in foster care — at least 10 to 15 percent more than last year — have driven up costs for the agency.

Natan said rising caseloads have created a $1 million shortfall in operating costs for the agency.